Santana Was Wrong


That was Johan Santana himself before the season, when asked who is the best pitcher in the NL East.

It’s hard to imagine that Santana would answer in the same way now. Roy Halladay of the rival Phillies leads the NL in FIP at 2.32 and xFIP at 2.93 and threw a perfect game. Josh Johnson of the Marlins has struck out a batter per inning and is second and third in FIP and xFIP respectively. Even Santana’s Mets teammate Mike Pelfrey has outperformed him this year, as his 3.20 FIP and 3.80 xFIP both lead the team.

It’s not like Santana is having a bad season. His 2.76 ERA is supported by a 3.57 FIP, and whatever the cause, he’s doing a great job of keeping the ball in the park, only allowing six home runs on the season. However, a decline is clear when we examine his peripheral marks, and his strikeouts in particular. This is the first year of Santana’s career in which he has struck out fewer than seven batters per nine innings since 2001; 6.55 K/9 is over one strikeout per inning fewer than 2009.

His swinging strike rate is below 10% for the first time since FanGraphs began tracking the statistic in 2002. Most of this can be pinned on the fact that Santana’s two seamer has lost something. The same pitch which drew whiffs on 10.9% percent of pitches is now only drawing whiffs 3.6% of the time. Also, Santana is throwing the four seam fastball more often – 50% of the time instead of roughly 33%. This means fewer changeups and sliders, both pitches which draw far more swings and misses than the fastball.

Right now, Santana’s xFIP is at 4.49. His HR/9 rate is only 0.69 despite a very low 35.8% ground ball rate. Santana has never been fantastic at suppressing home runs, even though he did have five straight sub-1.00 HR/9 seasons with the Twins. He’s always lived through avoiding contact and drawing enough infield flies to the point that the fact that he allows a ton of fly balls doesn’t kill him.

This year, though, hitters are making more contact than ever, but Johan is surviving on BABIP luck (.268) and a career low HR/FB% (5.5). Thanks to spacious Citi Field, Santana managed to get around nine fly balls and six line drives without allowing a home run in yesterday’s start against San Diego. He was not able to get around the 23 balls in play, however, as he allowed eight hits en route to a mediocre six inning, four run performance. Santana didn’t show that ability to avoid contact which made him a perennial Cy Young contender in throughout the 2000s, striking out only one of the 29 Padres he faced.

Right now, Johan Santana looks as if he’s having a fantastic year on the surface, but signs are pointing to a harsh decline. High contact rates and low groundball rates are recipes for disaster, and that’s what Santana’s stuff is generating right now. So far, he hasn’t been burned by it, but the numbers suggest that this rosy season can’t last. And we know, for sure, that he isn’t the best pitcher in the NL East.

Jack Moore's work can be seen at VICE Sports and anywhere else you're willing to pay him to write. Buy his e-book.

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12 years ago

The game was at Citi Field in NY. Still spacious, but not as much as Petco.